Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on May 22, 2023.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Harvard University instructor Carmine Gallo outlines four strategies of "exceptional communicators" leaders can use to help "motivate and inspire" their teams.
According to Gallo, written ideas are harder to understand when they are presented in long, complicated sentences—"they're mentally draining and demand more concentration," he notes. "You'll win more fans if you replace long words and sentences with short ones."
"If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do," said Nobel prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman. According to Kahneman, persuasive speakers and writers take steps to reduce "cognitive strain."
For example, in his first Amazon shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos, founder, executive chairman, and former president and CEO of Amazon, wrote at a tenth-grade level. Over the next decade, he wrote at an eighth- or ninth-grade level for 85% of his letters.
"Bezos chose short words to talk about hard things," Gallo writes. "When you make things simple, you're not dumbing down the content. You're outsmarting the competition."
In addition, leaders can use metaphors as "shortcuts to communicating complex information in short, catchy phrases," Gallo writes. " … When you introduce a new or abstract idea, your audience will automatically search for something familiar to help them make sense of it. Introduce a novel metaphor and beat them to the punch."
In 1995, Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett coined the phrase "moats and castles" in the context of "companies that dominate an industry that's difficult for competitors to enter," Gallo writes.
"The most important thing we do is to find a business with a wide and long-lasting moat around it, protecting a terrific economic castle with an honest lord in charge of the castle," Buffett said.
According to Gallo, the castle metaphor created "a concise shortcut, a vivid explanation for a complex system of data and information that Buffett and his team use to evaluate potential investments."
To make data more interesting, Gallo suggests "humaniz[ing] it by placing the number in perspective."
"Any time you introduce numbers, take the extra step to make them engaging, memorable, and, ultimately, persuasive," he writes.
According to astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the key to science communication is to "embed the concept in familiar ground," putting data into language the average person can understand. When Tyson had to defend the budget of a $3 billion space probe, he explained that Americans spend more on lip balm every year than NASA would spend on the mission over its eight-year timeline.
"To demonstrate the value of your idea, humanize data and make it relevant to your listeners," Gallo says.
Mission statements, which are designed "to align teams around a common purpose," are most effective when they are not "tucked in a drawer and largely forgotten," Gallo writes.
According to Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, most leaders under-communicate their vision. "Transformation is impossible unless hundreds or thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices," Kotter said.
"Transformational leaders overcommunicate. They repeat the mission so often, it becomes a mantra," Gallo writes. "A mantra is a statement or slogan that builds in strength as it's repeated. Overcommunication fuels its impact."
Ultimately, a company's mission should be central to its operations. "Shine a spotlight on your company's purpose across communication channels: memos, emails, presentations, social media, and marketing material. If your mission stands for something, then stand up for it," Gallo suggests. (Gallo, Harvard Business Review, 11/23)
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